With just two wins from eight Premier League games so far, it’s safe to say Marco Silva’s second season at Everton is not going to plan.
The Toffees are stranded in the bottom three with their only solace in recent weeks coming in League Cup wins over lower league opposition: Lincoln City and Sheffield Wednesday.
But it wasn’t meant to be this way. Everton ended the 2018/19 campaign with a draw and four wins at home over Liverpool, Chelsea, Arsenal, Manchester United and Burnley without conceding a goal, while they also held Tottenham Hotspur 2-2 away on the final day.
Furthermore, another summer of heavy investment saw the likes of Moise Kean, Alex Iwobi and Jean Philippe-Gbamin arrive at Goodison Park.
Although he is under serious pressure from supporters, it’s hard to see Silva being sacked any time soon. In fact, given their cycling through managers since the departure of David Moyes, you could say it’s more important for Farhad Moshiri to stick by his man this time.
So, what changes could Silva make to save his job and turn things around at Goodison Park? Here are four suggestions.
1. Defending set-pieces
In open play last season, only the Premier League’s top four conceded fewer goals than Everton’s 23, while they also rank joint-third – alongside Liverpool – this season in the same metric with six. In fact, since Silva took charge last year, only Manchester City (293), Liverpool (384) and Chelsea (421) have faced fewer shots than the Toffees (476). Their defensive shape is solid and effective.
Translate that to set-pieces, however, and you get a whole different story. No Premier League team conceded more goals from set-pieces than Everton’s 16 last term, while they top that particular metric so far in 2019/20 with five.
Last season, it was the Toffees’ near post getting pummelled with crosses, with not one defender in Silva’s zonal system taking charge of the situation or attacking the ball. Toward the end of the campaign, that problem was remedied and Everton became far more reliable defending their own box.
But with one problem solved, another has now reared its head – teams are now firing crosses to an almost deserted far post, spotting Everton’s over-compensation at the near post and punishing them tenfold. Jeff Hendrick’s goal in Everton’s 1-0 defeat to Burnley is just the latest in a long line of examples, as can be seen in the thread below.
Whilst the same seems to provide plenty of front end protection, there is an area of vulnerability towards the back post, as highlighted in green.
That specific area of the box is where opposing sides have been targeting. pic.twitter.com/E1Gs8zr4WX
— David Alexander Hughes (@DAHughes_) October 8, 2019
To revert to a man-marking system likely wouldn’t solve any problems. Michael Keane and Yerry Mina are notoriously poor at tracking runs, while man-marking puts far too much emphasis on watching the opposition player rather than the flight of the ball, leading to absolute chaos in the box. Sure, you’ll know exactly who is culpable for a goal, but culpability doesn’t stop the goals being conceded.
Silva would be better served drilling his players to be more active when the ball comes into the box, instructing players along the six-yard line to take extra responsibility for attacking crosses and the blockers to be more alert to slowing down the runs of the opposition’s most dangerous aerial threats. Especially when Jordan Pickford isn’t the tallest goalkeeper and lacks confidence coming to claim crosses.
Either way, his set-piece problem must be fixed if 2019/20 isn’t to be yet another wasted season for the blue half of Merseyside.
2. Bring back Kurt Zouma
Likely playing a big hand in the return of Everton’s set-piece issues, the decision not to keep hold of Kurt Zouma, or at least sign an able replacement given that Phil Jagielka was also leaving the club, was absolutely criminal.
The Frenchman formed a brilliant partnership with Keane toward the latter half of 2018/19, with the pair sharing an understanding of who attacks the ball and who drops off and nullifying some of the most potent attackers in the Premier League. With him gone, Silva is relying on the fitness of Keane and Mina, with only unfancied youngster Mason Holgate standing by as a senior replacement.
Given that Chelsea’s transfer ban left Frank Lampard needing to seriously review which players he allowed to leave Stamford Bridge, it’d be unfair to criticise Everton too much for not keeping Zouma around. But with that being the case, a replacement should have been the paramount priority – after all, Silva signed Gbamin with the long-term aim of replacing Idrissa Gueye. Why solve one issue and leave another unchecked?
Everton will have to make do until January, but when that transfer window comes, another bid for Zouma is definitely something they should consider. The Frenchman has struggled to maintain his place in the Chelsea starting XI this season and has come under fire for some sub-par performances. Fikayo Tomori has emerged as a real talent at the heart of Lampard’s defence, while it’s hard to see Zouma ousting Andreas Christensen and Antonio Rudiger when they’re fully fit.
But Zouma has already proved what he can offer to Silva’s side and has familiarity with the Portuguese tactician’s squad. His form with Everton last season was so strong, in fact, that it even earned him a recall to the French national team.
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3. Say goodbye to sentiment
Deep breath, Evertonians, this one’s gonna hurt – it’s time to replace Seamus Coleman.
The Irishman has undoubtedly been one of the standout right-backs in the Premier League over the past decade, and the fact that he was signed for the tiny sum of £60,000 makes his career that much more impressive.
That said, the odd buccaneering performance aside, Coleman simply hasn’t been the same player he was since recovering from the broken leg he sustained in March 2017.
Luckily for Silva, he’s already got a more than able replacement at the club having signed French World Cup-winning right-back Djibril Sidibe on loan from Monaco in the summer.
The 27-year-old has already impressed during his two League Cup performances so far, showing far better delivery than Coleman and giving Everton balance, knowing they can play the ball left or right to two French full-backs who can land the ball on a penny in the box.
Further forward, and despite a flurry of goals recently, it’s painfully clear that Dominic Calvert-Lewin simply isn’t a top-class striker. The former Sheffield United youngster’s first touch has left a lot to be desired for some time now, while his return of 13 goals and eight assists in 85 Premier League appearances is quite simply horrendous. At 22, the excuse of “developing youngster” can no longer apply to him and a decision must be made in which sentiment doesn’t factor.
Everton’s failure to replace Romelu Lukaku has been well documented but it’s important to remember they did spend £27.5m to bring Moise Kean from Juventus in the summer. It’s time to blood the 19-year-old and give him the run of games he needs to adjust to the Premier League and build up his confidence.
4. Become less predictable
Since Silva’s appointment, only Manchester City have attempted more crosses from open play (674) than Everton’s 668. However, whereas most of City’s crosses are low deliveries just in front of the six-yard box as a result of extensive build-up play, most of Everton’s appear to be hopeful punts into the box, with no clear plan or sign of dynamic movement. Bringing Sidibe into the starting XI can certainly help improve Everton’s quality of delivery but Silva must still find a way to make them more unpredictable.
According to Whoscored, the Toffees haven’t deviated from their 4-2-3-1 formation at all in the Premier League this season. Each week, we see the same things: a double pivot behind Gylfi Sigurdsson, two inside forwards and a lone striker looking to run the channels or stand in the box and await a cross.
It’s hugely important in modern football to have an identity, but certainly not at the cost of your spontinuety.
Silva has a number of adaptable players in his squad: Bernard can turn full-backs inside out from a wide position or split a defence from a more central role, Richarlison can take the ball and cause havoc cutting inside but is also physical enough to operate through the middle, and Sigurdsson’s passing range and tactical discipline – he’s often tasked with cutting off passes to the opposition’s holding midfielder – mean he could easily perform as a No.10 or a No.8.
Perhaps a change to a 4-3-3 could allow Everton’s faster players to create and exploit space further forward? Maybe a 4-4-2 could spring a surprise partnership between two of their mobile strikers while also allowing for a solid, compact low block?
Regardless, right now, Everton are one of the easiest sides in the English top-flight to plan for and this has, without a doubt, played a huge part in their recent struggles.